Salem pinball wizard ranked No. 3 in the world

By Chris CassidyTHE SALEM NEWS (SALEM, Mass.)
SALEM, Mass. — He trains only a few hours a week, wears regular street clothes and doesn’t have to dodge the kind of intense media glare you’d expect to trail a world champion.In fact, not a single autograph-seeker approached his table while he picked at a basket of fries at Salem Willows on a recent Friday afternoon.But Bowen Kerins, 31, has been featured on SportsCenter, earned a front-page photo in the Life section of USA Today and won tens of thousands of dollars — all for playing pinball.Yes, pinball.The flashy game of flippers, bumpers and metal balls that has long been a staple of arcades across the country has drawn the Salem resident and former Swampscott High School math teacher to places like New York City and Pittsburgh to compete in world competitions.And before you dismiss pinball as a mindless game for teenagers with quarters to burn, consider this: Kerins has won more than $40,000 in cash and prizes over the course of his pinball-flipping career.He first conquered the pinball world at age 18 as a freshman at Stanford University. He flew out to New York City one weekend, competed against 700 others and was crowned the world champion of pinball by the Pro-Am Pinball Association. Along with the title, he took home $4,000 and a brand-new pinball machine. “For an 18-year-old in college, that’s a much bigger prize than it would be today,” Kerins said. “That kept me from having to get side jobs for quite a while.”Armed with the equivalent of 16,000 quarters, Kerins continued honing the tools of his arcade trade.But with championship glory came lofty expectations. When Kerins failed to repeat as champion the following year, a reporter from Spin magazine covering the event noted that the defending champion had finished “an uninspiring eighth place.”“I like to go around saying Spin magazine called my performance ‘uninspiring,’” Kerins joked.Reclaiming the crownBut last year — more than a decade after his first title — Kerins reclaimed the world championship in Pittsburgh. The prize: a towering trophy and $10,000 cash. “That was pretty cool,” he said.SportsCenter replayed the victory, ESPN 2 filmed a 15-minute segment on the tournament, and Kerins was featured on CNN and even interviewed by a Japanese radio station.If it seems difficult to believe that a national TV audience could find coverage of pinball interesting, you clearly haven’t been watching enough television.ESPN has televised the national Scrabble championship, the championship round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee and the Alka-Seltzer U.S. Open of Competitive Eating. The World Series of Darts aired on ESPN for the first time this summer — during prime time. Last year, the World Series of Poker drew a television audience of more than 1.1 million viewers. And one of the featured flicks at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival was “Wordplay,” a documentary about crossword puzzles.So how competitive is pinball? “When you see these poker tournaments, people are insulting each other or cussing at each other,” Kerins said. “None of that ever happens in pinball.“But a lot of these guys take on a persona,” he said. “One guy calls himself ‘The Storm.’ ... I’ll kind of jump around or yell at the game a little bit, but that’s all to take my mind off the fact that I’m competing.”Millions of pointsThese days, Kerins is ranked No. 3 in the World Pinball Player rankings, which claims to be the first international ranking system of pinball players. At one point, he held the high scores on every pinball machine at the Salem Willows Arcade, but the staff regularly resets the top tallies and wiped out his game, he said.On a recent afternoon at the Willows, Kerins managed to rack up about 28 million points in five minutes on The Simpsons pinball machine. But his all-time highest score is 1.7 billion points — a feat that took about two hours of concentration.Playing pinball isn’t the only skill that has put him in front of a television audience. In 2000, he won $32,000 as a contestant on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”He admits he may have had an advantage during the show’s Fastest Finger round. “I give some credit to pinball for helping me push the buttons,” Kerins said. Chris Cassidy writes for The Salem (Mass.) News.X X X HOW TO WINPinball advice from a two-time world champion1. Figure out the functions on the playfield. Some targets will earn you big points. Some will award you a free ball. Learn which are which.2. Develop your aim. “A brand-new player will just flip the ball,” Kerins said. “You don’t have to flip immediately. You can wait and time your flips so you can aim a little to the left or a little to the right.”3. Learn how to stop the ball. By holding the flipper upright, you can trap the ball. Or by extending the flipper straight out, you can let the ball come to rest, then aim your next shot. “Catching gives you a lot of control and gives you time to think about what you should shoot for.”

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